The JGM BitBlog: Should I stay or should I go? COVID-19 and the dual home/host country allegiance of self-initiated expatriate health workers.

Journal of Global Mobility

Juan Miguel Rosa Gonzalez, Griffith University, Nathan, Australia

Michelle Barker, Griffith University, Nathan, Australia

Dhara Shah, Griffith University, Nathan, Australia

According to the World Health Organisation, the COVID-19 pandemic had caused over 6 million deaths as of May 2022. This global crisis put unprecedented pressure on health systems across the globe, with health workers experiencing high levels of stress as first responders directly involved in one-on-one care of patients. For expatriate health workers, travel restrictions meant not only forced separation from relatives at a time of extreme uncertainty, but also their inability to assist their home countries in the fight against the pandemic.

Expatriate health workers from highly impacted countries living in locations where the pandemic had limited spread saw how their colleagues back home struggled with insufficient resources, and how their fellow nationals – including close relatives – experienced restrictive lockdowns. This raises the question of how perceptions of home and host country safety during the pandemic amongst self-initiated expatriate (SIE) health workers affected their expatriation experience, and particularly their intention to repatriate – when viable – or to stay.

Building on literature on expatriates’ safety during crises, social networks, and push-pull theory, this study sheds light on such issues by exploring the experiences of Spanish SIE nurses in Germany. Semi-structured interviews were conducted between April-June 2020, in the midst of the first wave of COVID-19, followed by instant messaging interactions with the same participants in October-November 2020, when the second wave of the pandemic swept across Europe.

The results show that during the first wave of the pandemic, the overwhelming flux of concerning news about the impact of COVID-19 in Spain exacerbated the stress experienced by the Spanish nurses, some of whom reported feelings of guilt for not being in their home country. This was reinforced by their social networks being comprised mostly of fellow Spaniards. The nurses perceived their situation in Germany, where the impact of COVID-19 was significantly lower than in Spain, with mixed feelings of guilt and sorrow, luck and safety. Their positive appraisal of both the organisational support offered by their employers and the management of the pandemic by German authorities’ served to strengthen their intention to stay in the host country, despite the strong pull forces of cultural identity and family in the home country. Together with perceptions of personal safety (both as health workers and as citizens), the other main motives reinforcing the participants’ intention to stay in Germany were career embeddedness and the prospect of an economic crisis in Spain. Interestingly, the shortage of health workers in Spain amidst the health crisis caused by COVID-19 did not act as a home country pull force, as the nurses shared the perception that the pandemic would not change the precarious employment conditions of nurses in their home country, which had motivated their self-initiated expatriation in the first place.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:

Rosa González, J.M., Barker, M. and Shah, D. (2022), "COVID-19 and self-initiated expatriate health workers: Spanish nurses in Germany", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 242-264.